Almost as soon as the Trump Administration commenced, Republican pollster and newly installed Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway uttered five syllables which have since characterized Trump-era politics.
When confronted by NBC correspondent Chuck Todd, she described Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s alleged duplicity as an expression of “alternative facts.” The subsequent debacle was fascinating. Their interview, which has since acquired an excess of one million views on YouTube, cascaded into a series of counter-assertions contested only by further counter-assertions.
There was no debate. No shared language or common frame of reference was appealed to.
Some commentators have argued that this tendency is symptomatic of a culture wherein narratives regulate the validity of truth claims. Here, ‘facts’ are endorsed whenever they have coherence within larger emotively appealing stories.
Stories are powerful. Stories tell us who we are, where we come from and where we are going.
Donald Trump’s entire political ascension has been built upon calculated storytelling. This is evident in his early legitimation of the ‘birther’ movement (which claimed that Barack Obama was born outside the United States). It also undergirds his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump has astutely been presenting an alternative vision of American life.
He has painted the ‘good old days’ of conservative middle America upon a blank canvas. The existence of anything tainting the purity of this portrait is ignored. This isn’t a new argument building upon something preceding it; it’s a social reconstruction of reality which plays upon emotions and residual gut feelings about how the world is supposed to be. Momentarily, any pain associated with ‘today’s mess’ is relieved.
I believe that ultimately Trump’s most avid followers know that the past is always partially irretrievable. However, the suspension of disbelief can still induce drug-like effects.
Some pundits have identified Trump’s dismissal of unfavorable (or “fake”) news with postmodernity. Aside from anything else, postmodernity is a reaction to enlightenment attempts to build a modern society. The enlightenment period placed an unprecedented value upon the benevolent power of reason.
During the enlightenment, many people believed that sweet reasonableness would solve the world’s problems.
Enlightenment confidence wavered during the First World War. It died a merciless death upon the emergence of National Socialism and Communist regimes.
How did atrocities like the Holocaust occur in modern educated societies like those in Germany? Why did Marxism go so wrong when it was lived out in practice? Are Western powers really all that different?
These questions haunted the twentieth century.
By the time two mysterious planes flew into the Twin Towers, enlightenment modernism was proclaimed well and truly dead. Humanity’s supposed ability to rationally construct a better society seemed too risky to place any significant trust in.
Postmodernism capitalizes upon this anxiety. Its disparate reactive nature is reflected in Michael Foucault’s “archeology of knowledge,” which critiqued social and political power structures and Jacques Derrida’s attempts to “deconstruct” language itself. However, postmodernity’s grip extends beyond esoteric French philosophers. The fragility of truth looms large in groundbreaking dystopias such as The Truman Show (1998) or A Clockwork Orange (1971). It is the cultural matrix which fueled ironic true to life cartoons such as The Simpsons throughout the nineties and pop Artist Andy Warhol’s strange elusive interviews.
At its best, postmodernism is a sardonic sneer at any kind of hubris. It is a funeral, not a resistance. It’s not radical or rebellious. It’s cautious, ironic and cynical: too painstakingly aware of past mistakes to put one foot in front of the next.
Without knowing it, grumpy old men are the real postmodern gurus, tempering youthful ambition and optimism. Postmodernity is in fact implicitly more symptomatic of The Silent Generation and Baby Boomers. Consequentially, it cannot fully explain the Trump phenomenon and other populist movements such as Jeremy Corbyn’s old hat socialism in Britain, or Sinn Féin’s meteoric rise in Ireland.
I believe that there is another dynamic at play. One of postmodernism’s younger cousins: metamodernism. If postmodernism is despairing, metamodernism is sad. Some equate metamodernism with another academic term: post-postmodernism. But let’s avoid the latter phrase because it drives most people a little bit crazy.
Metamodernists sometimes see themselves somewhere between enlightenment modernity and postmodernity. In a fundamental way, they buy into the cynicism of their postmodern ancestors. However, they also desire to regain a modern sense of achievement and hope in a better future. Metamodernists really want to revive modernist confidence but they know that it is impossible. So, they settle for the next best thing: story.
Like their predecessors, they distrust the establishment. But this distrust is magnified even more because ‘the establishment’ becomes the boogeyman within a simple appealing story. Even if most voters fundamentally did not buy Trump’s dramatic promise to revitalize industry or end corruption, he told a story. He told a story about immigration; the FBI; Islam; Mexico; and more. He created a grandiose heroic self-image which no-one really believed deep-down. But the story was good. It had twists and turns. It gave its adherents a sense of identity.
It was a performance: metamodernist theorists use this word a lot.
Trump’s performance avoids cognitive dissonance (uncomfortable feelings associated with complexity or apparently irreconcilable facts). Its simplicity is its strength. There are goodies and baddies. Winners and losers. It involves simple, two dimensional, characters (“crooked Hilary,” “lying Ted”).
Arguably everyone uses this interpretive lens to some degree. But, its potential predominance could wreak havoc.
Brexit (Britain’s decision to leave the EU) also told a story about old English sensibilities. A Britain with less regulation; less inferiority; less immigration; and fewer problems was envisioned. No-one really bought that either.
But it appealed to the metamodernist’s attempt to walk in the shoes of modernity whilst accepting its ultimate ineffability.
Some commentators have alleged that Trump’s inauguration speech borrows lines from Batman supervillain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
If this is true, Trump was exhibiting metamodern sensibilities to a tee. Narrative and public policy literally became one.
At some point metamodern narratives will unravel or swerve in undesirable directions. Everyone knows it. Metamodernism is populism’s elephant in the room. An honest critical evaluation of metamodernism, identifying both strengths and indisputable weaknesses, is the only way to break its spell.
Illustration: DonkeyHotey/Creative Commons